In January, 2009 the football world was waiting for the Super Bowl. New entrants into the CTE analysis and discussion, Dr. Ann McKee and Chris Nowinski used media week to present even more damning evidence. McKee and a team of scientists announced several new cases of CTE, including former NFL player Tom McHale, who died of a drug overdose at age 45, as well as in the brain of an 18-year-old high school student who died 10 days after suffering his fourth concussion.
In September 2009, a front-page story in the New York Times reported that an NFL-funded study of retired players, ages 30-49, found that former players are 19 times more likely than the general population to have dementia, Alzheimer’s or other memory related diseases. This was the NFL’s own data from the study they funded.
What was the NFL’s reaction?
Spokesman Greg Aiello criticized their own study, stating in an email, “The survey was subject to shortcomings of telephone surveys and that thousands of retired players who do not have memory problems…”
The NFL is now criticizing its own study. And losing any credibility it had left. Even Congress wanted to know what was going on.
In October 2009, the House Judiciary Committee held hearings on football and brain damage. Present were the Dissenters, and Roger Goodell. Dr. Ira Casson was not present. The Dissenters presented their evidence showing CTE in football players. Then it was the Commissioner’s turn.
Roger Goodell wanted to be Commissioner of the NFL since his teens, according to the authors. He told his father he only wanted two things in life: “Your respect, and to be Commissioner of the NFL.” Ironically, his father Charles, had been an elected Republican congressman and Senator from New York. Now his son was on the hot seat in the hallowed halls once roamed by his dad.
Chairman John Conyers: There appears to be growing evidence that playing football may be linked to long term brain damage…Commissioner Goodell, is there a link between playing football and the likelihood of contracting a brain-related injury such as dementia, Alzheimer’s, depression, or CTE?
Goodell: The answer is, the medical experts would know better than I would with respect to that. But we are not treating that in any way in delaying anything we do. We are reinforcing our commitment to make sure we make the safest possible deal for our… ”
Conyers (cutting off Goodell): All right, OK. I have heard it.
Next up was, Rep. Linda Sanchez from California. Her father had Alzheimers. She regretted that Dr. Ira Casson was not at the hearing. She then showed the film clip from HBO of “Dr. No’s rapid fire denials” with Bernie Goldberg.
Sanchez asked Goodell, like a teacher to her pupil, to read aloud from the NFL’s own pamphlet telling players that current research had not shown that repeated concussions lead to permanent brain damage.
When Goodell finished reading, “she cheerfully tore into him,” according to the authors, as evidenced by the video below.
As far as the Dissenters and perhaps Congress was concerned – mission accomplished. The NFL had been compared to the dreaded tobacco companies. And why not? They had used power and vast resources to try to discredit scientists it disagreed with, to blemish or bury their work.
It is here, however, the authors make an important distinction between the NFL and tobacco:
“But smoking is a public scourge with no real utility to anyone who came in touch with it. Football promoted discipline, character and mental and physical well-being and brought people together by the millions. It was an incredibly sophisticated, uniquely American sport, and entire books would be written about its appeal. Also, football was not addictive. The tobacco industry’s manipulative fight against science went on for five decades, and left zero doubt about the risks of smoking. The research into football, though ominous, was relatively new and far less conclusive about the ultimate risk and prevalence of neurodegenerative disease.”
Now publicly embarrassed, Goodell changed the tenor and policies about player safety. Some key events include:
• Dr. Ira Casson and Dr. David Viano resigned from the MTBI committee three weeks after the Capitol Hill hearings. It is later renamed the “Head, Neck and Spine Committee.”
• NFL Spokesman Greg Aiello tells the New York Times, “it’s quite obvious from the medical research that’s been done that concussions can lead to long-term problems.” This is the first time the league admits that concussions had long-term effects.
• NFL announces any player that exhibits symptoms of a concussion should not return to play on the same day.
• NFL makes Boston University, led by Dr. Ann McKee, a “Preferred” Brain Bank and donates $1 million for research on brains of deceased NFL players.
• The league warns that concussions “may lead to problems with memory and communication, personality changes, as well as depression and the early onset of dementia.
• NFL announces a $30 million donation to the National Institutes of Health for research into brain trauma.
• Former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson commits suicide by shooting himself in the chest and leaves a note asking for his brain to be studied. Duerson is diagnosed with CTE.
• The NFL moves up kick-offs by five yards to the 35-yard line in hopes of reducing the speed of collisions during kickoffs.
• Former Atlanta Falcons safety Ray Easterling files a lawsuit against the NFL. He is joined by more than 4,500 former players who claim the league engaged in a “concerted effort of deception and denial” in its handling of the science of concussions and brain trauma.
• Eight months later, Ray Easterling, commits suicide by shooting himself at the age of 62. He is later diagnosed with CTE.
• Junior Seau shoots himself in the chest two years after retiring. The NIH later diagnoses Seau with CTE.
• NFL announces it’s funding Heads Up Football, a new USA Football initiative to promote safety and concussion awareness in youth football.
• January 2013, the NFL announces that an independent neurologist will be placed on the sidelines of every game, and introduces concussion assessment protocols and checklist.
• August 2013, the NFL agrees to pay $765 million to settle the lawsuit with retired players. As part of the settlement, the league doesn’t admit any wrongdoing. Commissioner Goodell reiterates that “there was no admission of guilt. There was no admission that anything was caused by football.”
This is where the book ends but the story does not.
In January 2014, Judge Anita Brody denied preliminary approval of the proposed NFL settlement with the players, citing concern with a lack of documentation regarding the fairness of the final monetary figure, and whether the players involved would be diagnosed and paid properly based on their claims.
“I am not yet satisfied that the Settlement has no obvious deficiencies, grants no preferential treatment to segments of the class, and falls within the range of possible approval.”
So where does this all leave us now?
On the one hand we have a league where its Commissioner has recently said he can see the NFL as a $25 billion industry. He has also agreed to pay almost $1 billion in benefits and legal fees to former players for disability and health benefits, but admits no wrongdoing. The NFL is also subsidizing institutions for further research of the long term effects of concussions and brain trauma.
Do we even know what to believe and which research institute is on the level?
Would the NFL pay millions in research to undermine their own league?
Commissioner Goodell’s motto is: “Protect the Shield.”
On the other hand are many of the retired players are suffering and need help. Will the proposed settlement be sufficient to help them in their long term care?
And what measures will be enacted to further improve the safety of the game? Will it be the same game we have come to love?
At best, the future of football is uncertain.
After Dr. Omalu had seen the evidence of CTE in Mike Webster’s brain he invited Dr. Joseph Maroon, a skeptic, to examine the evidence himself. Maroon was team neurosurgeon for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He and colleagues developed a test called IMPACT to determine whether a player should return to play after a concussion.
After seeing the slides showing the CTE-riddled brain of Webster, Maroon asked Omalu, ”Where do you think this is going?” Omalu said he didn’t know. Finally, after three more attempts to get Omalu to answer the question, Omalu asked Maroon, “OK, you tell me?”
Maroon responded prophetically, “If only 10 percent of mothers in America begin to conceive of football as a dangerous game, that is the end of football.”
I prefer the authors’ vision:
“That’s the thing about football, why it’s different from cigarettes and coal dust and not wearing your seat belt and a whole range of other things that have been proved bad for us. We love football. Americans by the millions are complicit in making the sport what it has become, for better or for worse. The outcome of the NFL’s concussion crisis will affect the country. But it will be determined not by the ‘enemies’ or the ‘opponents’ of football but by those in love with the sport: the players, the fans, the advertisers, the book writers, the moms and dads and kids. Even the scientists.”